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Report Criticizes Justice Department
Detentions of Immigrants

A total of 762 illegal immigrants were jailed in the weeks and months after the air attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as U.S. authorities traced tens of thousands of leads and sought to head off another attack. Most of those arrested have now been deported, and none have been charged as terrorists.

In June 2003, the Justice Department's inspector general, who serves as an internal watchdog, submitted a report reviewing the arrests, which concluded that the effort had been plagued with "significant problems." It found that amid the roundup, many people who had no connection to terrorism were jailed in harsh conditions.

The report concluded that FBI officials, particularly in New York City, "made little attempt to distinguish" between people who had possible ties to terrorism and others who were swept up by chance. It also found that those arrested had faced "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" from some guards as well as "unduly harsh" detention policies. A total of 84 prisoners held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn were subjected to 23-hour-a-day "lockdown," the report found, and also limited to one phone call a week and put in handcuffs, leg irons and heavy chains whenever they moved outside their cells. In the weeks after September 11th, the families of some held in the Brooklyn facility were told that they were not at the facility.

The report also said that immigration officials sometimes did not notify prisoners of the charges against them for more than a month, and that it took the FBI an average of 80 days to clear prisoners for removal or release because of understaffing and because the process was "not given sufficient priority."

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel completed a legal analysis of the report. The analysis found that it is completely lawful to detain aliens after a removal order to investigate whether they are involved in terrorism. The OLC is the office at the Justice Department that sets forth the definitive legal position of the Department of Justice. In a statement on the inspector general's report, Justice Department Director of Public Affairs Barbara Comstock said that the department's actions were "fully within the law and necessary to protect the American people."

For more information on changes in U.S. civil liberties since 9/11, please see these other HRCR Hot Topics:

  • The September 11 Detainees: A Review of the Treatment of Aliens Held on Immigration Charges in Connection with the Investigation of the September 11 Attacks, U.S. Department of Justice, Department of the Inspector General, June 2, 2003. Full Text or Press Release.
  • Legal Analysis of the inspector general's report by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel.

Written June 25, 2003; Last updated July 14, 2003.

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